Josh Anderson, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Ten months into President Barack Obama's first economic stimulus plan, a surge in spending on roads and bridges has had no effect on local unemployment and only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, an Associated Press analysis has found.
Spend a lot or spend nothing at all, it didn't matter, the AP analysis showed: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless of how much stimulus money Washington poured out for transportation, raising questions about Obama's argument that more road money would address an "urgent need to accelerate job growth."
Obama wants a second stimulus bill from Congress that relies in part on more road and bridge spending, projects the president said are "at the heart of our effort to accelerate job growth."
Construction spending would be a key part of the Jobs for Main Street Act, a $75 billion second stimulus to revive the nation's lethargic unemployment rate and improve the dismal job market for construction workers. The House approved the bill 217-212 last month after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., worked the floor for an hour; the Senate is expected to consider it later in January.
AP's analysis, which was reviewed by independent economists at five universities, showed that strategy hasn't affected unemployment rates so far. And there's concern it won't work the second time. For its analysis, the AP examined the effects of road and bridge spending in communities on local unemployment; it did not try to measure results of the broader aid that also was in the first stimulus like tax cuts, unemployment benefits or money for states.
"My bottom line is, I'd be skeptical about putting too much more money into a second stimulus until we've seen broader effects from the first stimulus," said Aaron Jackson, a Bentley University economist who reviewed AP's analysis.
Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP's analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.
"As a policy tool for creating jobs, this doesn't seem to have much bite," said Emory University economist Thomas Smith, who supported the stimulus and reviewed AP's analysis. "In terms of creating jobs, it doesn't seem like it's created very many. It may well be employing lots of people but those two things are very different."
Transportation spending is too small of a pebble to quickly create waves in the nation's $14 trillion economy. And starting a road project, even one considered "shovel ready," can take many months, meaning any modest effects of a second burst of transportation spending are unlikely to be felt for some time.
"It would be unlikely that even $20 billion spent all at once would be enough to move the needle of the huge decline we've seen, even in construction, much less the economy. The job destruction is way too big," said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
Few counties, for example, received more road money per capita than Marshall County, Tenn., about 90 minutes south of Nashville.
Obama's stimulus is paying the salaries of dozens of workers, but local officials said the unemployment rate continues to rise and is expected to top 20 percent soon. The new money for road projects isn't enough to offset the thousands of local jobs lost from the closing of manufacturing plants and automotive parts suppliers.
"The stimulus has not benefited the working-class people of Marshall County at all," said Isaac Zimmerle, a local contractor who has seen his construction business slowly dry up since 2008. That year, he built 30 homes. But prospects this year look grim.
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